The Birth of Bad Taste
Pontormo, too, in his early paintings on religious themes, has a tendency to overload his subjects’ eyes with expressiveness—consider just the central Mary in the 1518 Sacra Conversazione (Pucci Altarpiece), not to mention the Christ child with the unfocused stoner’s gaze in the 1523–25 Madonna and Child With the Young St. John the Baptist—but not quite as heavy-handedly as his Florentine colleague. Born Jacopo Carucci in 1494 (the same year as Rosso), the painter’s alias refers to Pontorme, his hometown, near Empoli. Vasari characterizes him as an asocial eccentric who dressed shabbily, adding: “He would not work save when and for whom he pleased.” Like Rosso, Pontormo painted a Deposition that is sadly missing from the show at the Palazzo Strozzi, though it hangs nearby in Florence in the church of Santa Felícita. It is dated 1525–28 and, in contrast to the one painted a few years earlier by Rosso, it forgoes any geometrical structure whatsoever. It lacks the cross itself, and the ground on which the figures with their candy-colored draperies tread is not differentiated from the air; they all seem to float slowly around each other in a sort of torpid Brownian motion. The one anchor in something like reality is the foreground figure, who actually appears to bear the weight of the dead savior on his shoulder, though crouching in a position that makes this almost impossible.
A similar weightlessness and placelessness can be seen in another famous painting of Pontormo’s on display at the Palazzo Strozzi, the Visitation of circa 1528–29. This sense of placelessness is all the more confounding in that the painting is given an outdoor setting with architecture—yet this is as unconvincing as a theatrical flat, and moreover entirely out of scale with the figures, who therefore appear as giantesses. Moreover, the figures of Mary and Elizabeth beginning to embrace each other in greeting are watched over by two women behind them who appear to be the same Mary and Elizabeth. We are presented not with the representation of a real event, but with the evocation of a spiritual state of being in which action and contemplation are at once split off from each other and confused.
The bizarrerie that both Rosso and Pontormo cultivate in their religious pictures is tamped down considerably in their portraiture. Yes, the elongation of figures that is one of the typical expressive devices in those paintings is also present in many of Pontormo’s portraits—it’s hard to ignore the inordinately stretched-out neck of his late Portrait of a Bishop (Monsignor Niccolò Ardinghelli?), for instance. Rosso’s portraits are typically more proportionate, but at their best they retain an air of unreality that somehow increases their intensity. For example, the scrubby green, evenly lit background of the Portrait of a Man (ca. 1522) from the National Gallery in Washington makes the pattern of light and shadow on his face seem completely unmotivated. And yet, as Franklin writes in his catalog entry on the painting, “the portrait continues to satisfy its traditional commemorative function” by capturing the sitter’s presence and personality. Did patrons who commissioned portraits still demand adherence to old-fashioned standards of taste they could no longer enforce in the production of altarpieces? More likely, the subject of portraiture was not as fraught with a troubled religiosity. The frazzled emotionalism of the Mannerist altarpieces can be ridiculous or poignant or both at once, but a portrait finally had to respect a man’s dignity. (All the portraits in the show by Pontormo or Rosso depict men.)
As if to prove the affinity between Mannerism and contemporary art, the Palazzo Strozzi is also presenting Bill Viola’s 1995 video installation The Greeting, which is based on Pontormo’s Visitation. This is one of Viola’s best works, but it employs the same device that makes so much of what he does unbearable: slow motion as a kind of expressive exaggeration. By slowing down an encounter that lasted forty-five seconds so that it stretches out to ten minutes, Viola turns what might have been a banal episode into a spectacle that feels freighted with unspecified significance. Just as the Mannerists—or modernists like Matisse—used spatial distortion, Viola uses temporal distortion to get his point across. Like the Mannerists—but unlike Matisse—Viola seems to do this in order to compel an attitude of piety toward what he is presenting that one might not otherwise be inclined to give. It’s not quite Keane’s saucer-eyed appeal for empathy, but it’s close enough to make me uneasy.